August 18 2015

Caravaggio and Cavafy

An illuminating synchronicity.

As I was in the midst of rereading the poems of Cavafy, I visited the Nelson-Atkins museum in Kansas City, which is home to Caravaggio’s “John the Baptist.” It was impossible not to be struck by the similar erotic visions. Here is the Caravaggio.

There’s nothing John-the-Baptist-ish about the image: none of the traditional markers, none of the usual emotions. The emotional world of the model is intensely fascinating, and the flesh is painted with an intense erotic charge. Notice that the limbs are pale, but the hands are suntanned: a "farmer’s tan." Notice also the dirty toenails. The model is working class. Caravaggio makes no attempt to hide his model’s origins; he seems to relish them. How to describe the strange mixture of raw attraction and emotional insight with a touch of religious awe?

Here is Cavafy’s “Days of 1909, 1910, 1911.”

He was the son of a harassed, poverty-stricken sailor
(from an island in the Aegean Sea).
He worked for a blacksmith: his clothes shabby,
his workshoes miserably torn,
his hands filthy with rust and oil.

In the evenings, after the shop closed,
if there was something he longed for especially,
a fairly expensive tie,
a tie for Sunday,
or if he saw and coveted
a beautiful blue shirt in some store window,
he’d sell his body for a dollar or two.

I ask myself if the glorious Alexandria
of ancient times could boast of a boy
more exquisite, more perfect—lost though he was:
that is, we don’t have a statue or painting of him;
thrust into that awful blacksmith’s shop,
overworked, tormented, given to cheap debauchery,
he was soon used up.

(trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

Here is Cavafy’s “Days of 1908.”

That year he found himself without a job.
Accordingly he lived by playing cards
and backgammon, and the occasional loan.

A position had been offered in a small
stationer’s, at three pounds a month. But he
turned it down unhesitatingly.
It wouldn’t do. That was no wage at all
for a sufficiently literate young man of twenty-five.

Two or three shillings a day, won hit or miss―
what could cards and backgammon earn the boy
at his kind of working class café,
however quick his play, however slow his picked
opponents? Worst of all, though, were the loans―
rarely a whole crown, usually half;
sometimes he had to settle for a shilling.

But sometimes for a week or more, set free
from the ghastliness of staying up all night,
he’d cool off with a swim, by morning light.

His clothes by then were in a dreadful state.
He had the one same suit to wear, the one
of much discolored cinnamon.

Ah days of summer, days of nineteen-eight,
excluded from your vision, tastefully,
was that cinnamon-discolored suit.

Your vision preserved him in the very act of
casting it off, throwing it all behind him,
the unfit clothes, the mended underclothing.
Naked he stood, impeccably fair, a marvel―
his hair uncombed, uplifted, his limbs tanned lightly
from those mornings naked at the baths, and at the seaside.

(trans. James Merrill)

New comment

comments powered by Disqus